It is the close of April, and Mohamed Mekkawi, an Arish student in the final year of middle school, is preparing for the end-of-year thanaweya amma exams. He wakes up early. He fills his small backpack with books, his notebooks and a water bottle, and then sets out to his tutoring session.
Mekkawi will walk 6 km on this April morning, according to Google Maps, a journey he makes almost daily from his neighborhood in the far eastern side of Arish toward the center of the town, where he spends most of the day before returning to his house via the same route.
Mekkawi is by no means an anomaly in Arish. Rana Mamdouh, who is also in the ninth grade, walks 5 km from her residential area on Khazan Street in west Arish to the city center. Her route is among the most dangerous in all of Arish, as it runs along the heavily fortified International Coastal Road.
Under the shadow of Operation Sinai 2018 — the large-scale military operation launched in February to curtail militancy in the peninsula that left North Sinai residents in various states of privation — exam preparation for Mekkawi, Mamdouh and some other 3,428 North Sinai students over the last two months is playing out differently from the stresses that students in the rest of Egypt face in dealing with an overburdened education and private tutoring system.
Despite a momentary reprieve that came along with the betterment of conditions across the governorate in late May and early June of this year, restrictions on the provisions of fuel that have made transportation nearly impossible have returned more recently.
Throughout this period, students and teachers have turned to a range of measures to try to not let the education system become completely disrupted. However, with official classes suspended in April and a subsequent reliance on distant tutoring sessions, the students that spoke to Mada Masr say it has been difficult to prepare for the exams that will determine their place in university.
High school students sat the thanaweya amma physics and history exam on Tuesday, and four exams are scheduled for early July.
The security situation in April imposed several restrictions on private tutoring sessions. Teachers were forced to change the schedule and location of the sessions, and tutors moved sessions closer to their homes, which left students with the choice of either dropping out or traveling long distances by foot or pickup trucks, the only transportation still available in the city.
Mekkawi’s physics teacher used to travel from Arish’s Masaeed district to tutor him and his friends in Reissa, near their houses.
But the sessions stopped with the start of the military campaign. Mekkawi told Mada Masr that his teacher would only agree to come to Reissa under the condition that a car transports him to and from the neighborhood.
Mamdouh says that most of her sessions used to take place at her house. But after the crisis, all of the sessions were transferred to downtown Arish.
Now, she often waits for an hour and a half for a microbus, which the governorate deployed to provide some relief to residents. “If the bus comes, it is usually overcrowded, a hassle to ride and makes a hundred stops so people can get in. I’m better off walking,” Mamdouh says.
By car, the route from her house should take 13 minutes, according to Google Maps, while by foot it takes two hours.
“Walking for two hours in the sun makes me unable to understand a word [when I arrive to my sessions],” Mamdouh says.
Zahraa Abdel Rahman, also a thanaweya amma student, spends seven hours every day traveling to and from and attending tutoring sessions that are 5 km away from her house.
In some instances, however, Abdel Rahman’s trips are in vain, as teachers don’t show up.
Iman Azmy, a thanaweya amma student, departs her house at 10 am so she can make it to her 12 pm session. In most cases, she doesn’t arrive on time. She says that teachers often apologize and cancel the session, citing a variety of reasons.
Given the almost daily communications cuts that beset Arish throughout most of the first months of the military campaign, students would only find out about cancellations upon arrival.
The distance traveled by foot also took a toll on students.
Lamiaa Zakaria says she exerts a significant amount of energy in walking. “When I go home, I can’t study, sleep or rest.”
Hadeel Hafez spends most of her day outside of the house, especially when she has two sessions scheduled. She starts her day at 8 am and returns at 7 pm.
“I am only able to start studying again the next day, after I wake up,” she says.
Conditions are worse in Bir al-Abd city, as itinerant teachers left the governorate in April and returned to their hometowns after classes were suspended.
According to Khaled Mohamed, a student based in Bir al-Abd, those conducting tutorial sessions introduced price hikes, citing the increased price of fuel. In the face of these prices, students dropped the sessions, Mohamed explains.
Abdel Rahman asserts that some teachers have attempted to find a middle ground with students by holding group sessions. But the solutions are not fair to everyone, as they are often held downtown, forcing many students to walk for hours.
Other students and parents tried to find alternative solutions. Attempts included families hiring taxis that managed to get gas to transport the teachers back and forth from their houses. Others have rented private flats downtown so their children can stay till the end of the final exams.
However, such measures are not enough to fully resume tutoring sessions, causing problems for students who want to spend the weeks leading up to exams revising, Abdel Rahman says.
The North Sinai education directorate and the Education Ministry attempted to offer students relief in the form of several initiatives, including “Online Teacher,” which is overseen by the education directorate and distributes recorded lessons online.
The initiative, which relies on social media and an active internet connection, was launched days after the beginning Operation Sinai 2018, when telecommunications networks were cut for up to 15 hours each day.
The students who spoke to Mada Masr in April say that the platform is not beneficial, given the internet blackouts. By the time the internet comes back at night, most students are too tired to study after their long and tiring trips to tutoring sessions.
Even when a connection is available, the videos take too long to load, according to Azmy, who describes the initiative as “unproductive.”
Zakaria doubles down on this sentiment. “The teacher should be present, and I should be able to see them so I can understand the material. What if I don’t understand a certain part? How will I ask questions?”
The program has been further hampered by the Armed Forces’ practice of confiscating mobile phones, tablets and laptops in security sweeps that saw raids conducted in residential areas.
An official from the initiative’s technical support team presented Online Teacher as a success, however. “The initiative was widely well-received and watched by students, after 160 videos were uploaded on the initiative’s YouTube channel.”
However, a close look at the channel shows that there have not been more than 10 views on many of the videos, while others have not been watched at all. In addition to this, the uploaded material does not cover the entire curriculum.
Living through the conflict in North Sinai has also affected students’ psychological state, deepening both their general suffering and their struggle with studying, students say.
“Most of the time, there are explosions in the surrounding areas,” Mekkawi says, adding that his house is shaken, frequently causing windows to break, from the impact caused by explosions.
He states that he has become an “expert” on how to distinguish between the sound of an airstrike, an IED and a house bombing.
Mamdouh demands that North Sinai students not be graded and evaluated in the same way as students in the rest of the country. “We cannot be judged like students who are able to travel to tutoring sessions in an Uber, while we can hear explosions and airstrikes as we study.”
This environment, Mamdouh says, has made students “very confused.”
The walk that Abdel Rahman takes to her tutoring sessions is lined by the debris of homes destroyed in security crackdowns on residences for allegedly housing wanted suspects.
“The view of the houses breaks your heart. People were kicked out, and, of course, there must have been families with thanaweya amma students who lived there,” she says.
“Arish is a small city, and the people are well acquainted with each other,” she adds. “When one is hurt, the whole city is.”
“All that we need is some stability and hope to make us feel safe,” Azmy explains. “We will continue to be resilient, so we can pass these exams and enroll in the universities we want so we can honor our country. We are not the ones to blame in all of this.”
In June, the cities of North Sinai witnessed a slight improvement in the availability of foodstuffs and vegetables following the implementation of a mechanism to regulate the supply of fuel and the movement of cars within the governorate in May.
However, the security situation deteriorated rapidly last week, after two civilians were killed by unidentified armed men on Saturday and Monday, and the Province of Sinai killed three soldiers on Wednesday, prompting security forces to reinstate restrictions on fuel supplies, before officially announcing on Monday that the North Sinai governorate would suspend fuel rations until further notice.
The security situation, coupled with a far-reaching recent power outage, has plunged students back into the difficult positions they faced in April.
Ahead of the administration of exams on Tuesday, Arish families, especially those of students living in Arish’s western and eastern neighborhoods, worried about how to transport students to exam stations located in the center of the city.
Mohamed Fadawi, a resident of Arish, took to Facebook to say he would drive students from the Masaeed area to examination stations in downtown Arish, setting a meeting point and providing details about his car. The move prompted others to use Facebook to call on residents in North Sinai to drive students to exams stations using private cars.
Islam Abed, a young man from Arish who owns a cafeteria under his home in the center of town, opened his doors to students who live on the city’s periphery on the evening before the test day, promising to provide a suitable atmosphere for them to be able to study.
The 20-year-old stresses that the aim of his initiative is to try to draw officials’ attention to a “real crisis that requires an urgent solution” and to “compel them to fulfill their responsibilities.”
Since Sunday, power outages in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah have left many residents obliged to spend evening hours using candlelight or electricity produced by generators, which only work for a limited number of hours per night. This includes high school students, according to a source in Sheikh Zuwayed’s educational administration — of which there are 293 students in Sheikh Zuwayed, and 180 in Rafah — who were studying on Monday for their history and physics exams.
According to a source in North Sinai’s transport sector, two electricity towers were downed in an area west of Sheikh Zuwayed, due to nearby explosions, damaging the supply cable coming from Arish and causing power outages in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah.
The source points out that damage of this kind needs heavy equipment so that repair teams can raise the towers again and connect necessary cables, explaining that it is difficult to determine how long it will take to fix.
Since 2015, residents of the two cities have suffered from power cuts due to damage of electricity towers as a result of explosions or armed clashes. During the past year, the two cities were cut off from electricity for 40 days from mid-June to early August 2017.